It takes a special kind of artist to pull off the blues. Not the common guitar riffs, time signatures or heavily referenced influences. Nor the retro equipment which replicates the sounds and resonance of past masters to an exact tone. No, the real blues. The inner turmoil and showmanship. The angst-ridden lyrics of isolation, fear and despair, delivered with an almost otherworldly passion and with edge.
Cold War Kids can’t claim to be amongst the ranks of those who can harness this mystic energy yet, but on certain glimpses tonight, and through the howls of lead singer Nathan Willtett, they’ve tapped in and headed out towards that crossroads where the devil awaits.
It’s in both the subtle nuances and the brazen, riff-led tracks that they show an insight into their potential. The singles played tonight; Hang Me Up To Dry with it’s bone-shaking bass line and primal vocals, Hospital Beds, all jangling piano keys and bleak imagery or We Used To Vacation, a song about domestic strife, all resonate with both the delicacy of a band who can surely craft a tune, but also with the lo-fi urgency that electrifies the message. In the same vein as, say, Tom Waits or The Velvet Underground, using sparse sounding instruments, but releasing a more full-bodied message.
They falter when they get the balance wrong on Red Wine, Success! they have the groove but not the intensity and Robbers, despite featuring a sparkling interlude courtesy of poet Derrick Brown (a friend of the band’s whose earlier musings had warmed us up) drops off the pace, despite having some of their best, introverted lyrics.
But when it’s right, Cold War Kids have the ability to unleash something original and memorable. Saint John, easily a stand out track from last year’s album Robbers and Cowards, is a glorious mess of off-rhythm harmonies and complicated time signatures. It hurls around a tale of a prisoner, the desperation of a man condemned to death and is sung in the style of a chain gang baking under an unforgiving summer sun. Likewise, the hushed, breathy tones of Pregnant take things to a bare minimum, leaving just a melody and soul.
Berating the band for not realising their potential tonight would be easy. But fragments of genius are better than none at all and give an indication that the inner creativity and direction of Cold War Kids has passion enough to unfurl into something quite special indeed. The energy, will and turmoil of the blues, mixed with the quirkiness of your favourite indie band and orated by a man equally possessed by the wails of Jimmy Page as the subtlety of Neil Young? If Cold War Kids can capture that spark and make it last, they’ll be more than capable of continuing the tradition.